Playing the Mother Card: Why We Need a Winning Hand

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National discussions about mothering seem to crop up during presidential campaigns, so it is time now to analyze honestly what these rare discussions say about our values.

Every four years. That’s how often the national conversation focuses on mothers. Sure, we regularly hear discussions about the outcomes of mothering — the kids — but it is only when politicians can use “mothering” to their gain do we get a discussion about mothers themselves. The rest of the time we get ignored.

The last time mothers held center stage was during the 2008 election. I was very excited by that election because, at first glance, it seemed that the presence of three very strong mothers — Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama — would mean something positive. Mothers were finally getting some national attention and that was great, right? However, much to my chagrin, nothing really changed. Interestingly, each woman played the mother card (as it were) differently, and yet the results were the same.

Hillary Rodham Clinton played the mother card only rarely. She still hardly uses it because, after having gotten burned in 1992 (remember, only during presidential election years do we seem to care about mothers) over some non-stereotypical mothering comments, she learned her lesson. However, during the 2008 election, Hillary’s mothering status was in evidence through Chelsea’s formidable presence on the campaign trail, and in Hillary’s convention speech. Yet for the most part, Hillary kept the mother card close to her chest because she knew that it would be used against her.

While Hillary emphasized her accomplishments and extensive knowledge, yet kept relatively silent about being a mother, Michelle Obama did the exact opposite. Any student of history knows that a potential President and First Lady will face heavy criticism for being equal partners, so Michelle used her family as a way to appear less threatening. During her convention speech and in press appearances, Michelle talked about her parents, her brother and, most especially, her daughters. Press reports approvingly stated that her main role in the White House would be as mother to Sasha and Malia or, as The Daily Beast labeled it, Mom-in-Chief. Thus, Michelle used the mother card to reassure the country that she would be a traditional First Lady who knows her place, and she hasn’t strayed from that plan. Her main causes have been childhood obesity and military families, pretty much home and hearth causes, so her mothering has kept her both relatable and contained.

Sarah Palin used her mother card quite blatantly, as being a mother was an integral part of her campaign strategy. At first, her brash use of motherhood appeared quite empowering. It was great hearing a powerful woman on a national stage talking about how being a “mom” was one of her qualifications for office. I especially enjoyed seeing Todd hold the baby while Sarah held the national spotlight at the Republican convention. And I celebrated the fact that Sarah’s mother card forced Joe Biden to talk during the vice presidential debate about his experiences as a single father — something I doubt he would have done had his opponent been a man.

However, even as important as family was to her campaign, it quickly became apparent that the policy decisions she espoused ran contrary to what is good for families, even her own. Sarah talked firmly about giving families of special-needs children a friend in the White House, yet she reduced funding in Alaska for that very group. She is a staunch advocate for abstinence-only sex education, yet her oldest daughter had an unplanned pregnancy at the age of 17, and she eventually admitted that abstinence-only education doesn’t work. She is a steadfast proponent of the war, something that literally destroys families and could hurt or kill her oldest son. Moreover, she was silent about true mothering issues like childcare, family leave, and family/work balance — things that could shake the core of our value system. Thus, Sarah’s mother card was, essentially, a sleight of hand. We thought we were seeing a new card but, upon closer inspection, it was the same one we’ve been seeing for decades and, in the end, Sarah’s mother card was just as non-threatening as that of Hillary and Michelle. None of them emphasized the true issues that are plaguing mothers and, by extension, families and the country. None of them offered a different interpretation of the role. In the end, mothers got just as little attention as we always have, and nothing was gained.

Now with the latest brouhaha over mothering, we’re seeing the exact same mother card at work. For those unfamiliar with the latest controversy, Democratic political pundit Hilary Rosen gave an interview on CNN, in which she stated that Ann Romney, stay-at-home mother of five boys, is a poor (heh) political consultant on women’s economic situations because she “never worked a day in her life.” Rosen was discussing the economics of mothering but, fast as lightning, the good ole mother card was played and the discussion now centers upon the importance of ‘good’ mothering rather than on mothers themselves. Even Sarah Palin weighed in and, with her clever obfuscation about “mama grizzlies,” reduced the discussion from the specific to the general, from reality to the fantasy (in some people’s minds at least). Even the Democrats came down on the side of traditional mothering and, in so doing, helped keep the topic of mothering safe so that we won’t have a real discussion on the problems inherent in our economic system. All politicians know that if they can keep mothers from being revolutionary, or even just plain honest, then we can maintain the status quo.

So let’s elevate the discussion into something honest and let’s start by saying that this isn’t just about mothers, it is about families. We are a nation that claims to revere “family values” while actually having very little. If we cared about families, we would focus on providing a world in which they are valued. We would offer a family-friendly workplace, in which employees could go home to their families at reasonable hours (roughly 30 work-hours per week); take paid time off to deal with illness, emergencies and family transitions; have flextime so that they could volunteer at schools and/or attend their child’s events; and even have paid vacations so that families could bond, or simply rest and rejuvenate. A country that values families would ensure that issues important to families, like education, childcare and healthcare, are affordable, accessible and of high quality. We would make certain that there are good community resources and infrastructure that enhance the lives of families. A nation that venerates families would see to it that libraries were bigger and better; bicycle lanes would be common instead of rare; there would be large swaths of greenery in which to play, picnic, hike and roam; the arts would be accessible, affordable and celebrated; there would be lots of preventative programs focusing on relationship skills; and air and water would be clean. In other words, a lot of the issues causing many families to live lives of quiet desperation would be relieved and everyone would win. Instead, what we have is a conversation every four years about the sanctity of traditional motherhood.

Whenever I do family counseling, one of my goals is to help people understand more effective communication. One way in which I do this is to get them to focus on the process of the conversation instead of the content: don’t hear what they’re saying, listen to how they say it and why. And that’s what needs to happen in this conversation about mothers. If you can ignore what it is they’re saying, then you will clearly see that this is a game of misdirection. If the powers-that-be can trumpet the importance of traditional mothers, then they look wholesome while ensuring that our lives continue to be difficult. If they place the responsibility for families solely at the feet at mothers, then they can ignore the role that fathers play. And by making families just a woman’s issue, they can ignore true family values until the next presidential cycle, when they can once again use mothers for political gain. Wouldn’t it be lovely if for once we could listen, not hear, and then hold their feet to the fire and achieve positive change?

Mother’s Day is coming up. It started as an activist holiday, so maybe the time is ripe for it to be a force for change again.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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